Thirty-one years ago, in 1985, New Zealand (N.Z.) banished U.S. warships from its shores. Prompted by a mass anti-nuclear movement, this South Pacific country had recently declared itself nuclear-free. But the U.S. government wanted continued access for its nuclear vessels. It proposed a visit by the destroyer USS Buchanan, insisting that it would “neither confirm nor deny” the presence of nuclear weapons. The N.Z. Labour government initially agreed to the visit but then refused, pressured by anti-nuclear protests.
The following year, the U.S. and its close ally Australia retaliated by excluding New Zealand from ANZUS, a 1951 military alliance between Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
Now, thirty years later, U.S. warships might return to N.Z. waters. The Royal N.Z. Navy has invited the U.S. Navy to its 75th anniversary in November.
Anti-nuclear mobilizing. Through the 1970s and early 1980s, the international anti-nuclear movement found an echo in N.Z. The global upsurge against the Vietnam War and the aggressive U.S. anti-war movement convinced many New Zealanders that the Cold War was really about imperialist aggression. In N.Z., the anti-nuclear protest movement grew with every American ship docking.
The politics of the movement varied from single-issue anti-nuke to strictly anti-imperialist, and classic reformism that would not go up against the N.Z. ruling class or its state. Its tactics included petitions, local government declarations and artworks. Large demonstrations featured effigies and street theatre performances. Feminist groups mobilized, as did indigenous Maori organizations. In 1983, women — 25,000 strong — made the biggest anti-nuclear march that Auckland had ever seen. Unionized workers refused to service ships. Stevedores in the capital city of Wellington went on strike for a full week in 1976. Flotillas of small boats attempted to stop naval vessels from entering ports.
Anti-nuclear and even anti-ANZUS policies gained support within the lower ranks of the opposition N.Z. Labour Party. Although the party’s leadership resisted rank-and-file pressure to oppose ANZUS, it did adopt the anti-nuke policy.
From 1975, the conservative National Party government welcomed an increasing number of U.S. warships to N.Z. But this divided its supporters and contributed to its electoral defeat in 1984. The incoming Labour government, led by David Lange, tried to be both anti-nuclear and pro-imperialist. The result of that impossible strategy was N.Z.’s exclusion from ANZUS.
Since then, New Zealand governments have avoided touching the anti-nuclear policy and there have not been any U.S. naval visits. Even the National Party had to accept the policy. Attempts to soften the anti-nuclear policy in the early 1990s were halted by renewed protest.
Cozying up again. In recent years, USA-New Zealand relations have warmed. In 2012, N.Z. was invited to the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, hosted by the U.S. Navy in Hawaii. In the same year, a ban on visits by N.Z. naval vessels to U.S. naval ports was lifted. The N.Z. Army is currently training Iraqi troops as part of the U.S. war on Islamic State. In February and March, N.Z. military personnel joined Australia, U.S. and South Korea in the annual “Double Dragon” maneuvers — an exercise aimed at containing North Korea.
The New Zealand government has also been soft-pedaling its anti-nuclear stance. Under N.Z. law, the Prime Minister has to verify that visiting vessels do not contain nuclear material. Now Prime Minister John Key says that he will dispense with the usual step of directly asking whether a U.S. vessel is nuclear-free. He presents this change as a mere formality. Actually, it represents a significant acquiescence to the U.S. insistence on sailing into areas on its own terms.
Junior imperialists. New Zealand media likes to present the nuclear-free policy as a reflection of the country’s “national character,” projecting N.Z. as a “victim” of U.S. bullying, rather than a willing partner to military bases and aggression in the in the Pacific.
In fact, Australia and New Zealand are regional imperialist powers, which meddle in the affairs of smaller Pacific nations. Formed out of British-settler colonies, both countries have brutally oppressed indigenous populations. Both maintained anti-Asian immigration policies for much of the twentieth century, and early in the Cold War, both countries fused anti-communism with anti-Asian racist discrimination.
The Korean War (1950-1953) persuaded the governments of N.Z. and Australia that Asia would be their main anti-communist battleground. They were also obsessed about Japanese rearmament. In 1951, both countries entered into the ANZUS security treaty with the U.S. The treaty was to “act to meet the common danger” and to commit to “mutual aid” — the latter included U.S. naval visits to Australia and N.Z.
By the early 1980s, the priorities of the ANZUS partners diverged. “Communist” China was no longer seen as a threat. The Reagan administration revived U.S. hostility to the USSR, a country that was of little concern to Australia, and even less to New Zealand. By this time, U.S. warships, and even ANZUS, had outlived their usefulness to N.Z.
Washington’s “Pivot to East Asia.” New Zealand’s recent warming of relations with the USA comes at a time when the U.S. Navy is asserting its “right” to enter disputed waters. It has recently been conducting so-called “Freedom of Navigation Operations” in the South China Seas. Indeed, the “Pivot to East Asia” policy of the Obama administration aims to keep China in check, partly by shifting the focus of the U.S. navy from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
The present governments of Australia and N.Z. are not enthusiastic about this “pivot.” Both are urging “restraint” as the U.S. sends B-52 bombers and a navy destroyer into the area. China is now a major trade and investment partner for N.Z. and Australia, and they love the profits from that trade. In New Zealand, even some conservative ministers do not want an ANZUS II, because N.Z. could be dragged into accepting unpopular warship visits, or even a conflict with China.
A wake-up call. New Zealanders need to build a revived movement against nuclear weapons, U.S. warship visits and imperialist alliances. Its No-Nuke victory was won through mass action and commitment, not magnanimously granted by an enlightened government. It is an inspiration for coming battles against the ruling class in New Zealand.
Author Alex Cole is a call center worker in Auckland, New Zealand / Aotearoa. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.